Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Response to Peter Kreeft, on lying

 The following article is a contribution by a guest-writer for The New Theological Movement.

The Geometer and the Carpenter: Evaluating the Midwives
It is the sign of a great mind that he can keep seemingly contrary or contradictory statements together at the same time.  I do not say really contrary or contradictory statements together at the same time, for that is the sign of the modern mind.  In light of the recent debate over Live Action’s outing of Planned Parenthood, I have decided to weigh in on the matter in hopes of shedding light with help from the Angelic Doctor, who because of the greatness of his mind, allows us to both affirm that lying is always wrong and praise the actions of Lila Rose, though not for the deception which those actions involved.
Before presenting what I hope is a Thomistic insight into the debate which includes the actions of spies, Dutchmen, 19th century abolitionists, and Live Action, I wish to express some disagreement with one of the interlocutors in this dialogue. My response to his article will lay the foundation of moral reasoning that is supremely rational and intuitive, neither rationalistic or casuistic nor lax.

Response to Peter Kreeft: The pitfall of moral rationalism
Dr. Peter Kreeft, in his article – “Why Live Action did right and why we all should know that” – has argued for a broader understanding of reason and moral intuition in thinking clearly about moral acts.  He rightly points out that both aspects of our mind’s activity have suffered greatly on account of modern thinkers.  The resulting emaciation of our account of how we know and what to do about it leaves us open to critics who are skeptical that we know anything at all.
However, when Dr. Kreeft appeals to St. Thomas and to Aristotle in order to defend the use of lying simply because it strikes the great majority of students as the right thing to do in that concrete situation – such that to question the praiseworthiness of actions in which deceit is used to obtain good results can only be met with the “you have got to be kidding me” response – he is mistaken. Moreover, he may be guilty of the same moral rationalism that he rightfully cautions against.
Dr. Kreeft is right to cite Aristotle as a witness against moral rationalism.  In teaching Descartes to students, I often refer to Aristotle’s dictum “for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.” (I.3) The certainty of mathematics is of a different nature than the certainty of philosophy, something that Descartes simply did not understand or could not come to grips with.  Aristotle and St. Thomas knew that the carpenter does not demand the right angle of the geometer, nor should he (I.7)
It will be helpful to remember that at best the principles in moral matters, because of their concreteness, variability of circumstances, and infinite particularities, will indicate truth “roughly and in outline fashion.” (I.3).  So while Dr. Kreeft does point out that moral intuition is not infallible, he does seem to suggest that the correct answer should be always or for the most part immediately grasped as true.  In other words, Dr. Kreeft seems to suggest that with the same ease as we grasp “murder is wrong”, we should be able to grasp not just “not all lying is wrong”, but the even more particular, “Lila Rose is right”.  Claiming universality based on a priori intuition sounds more like rationalism and the carpenter expecting the geometer’s right angle, than Aristotle. In this way, Dr. Kreeft is far more rationalistic than he realizes.
I must also disagree with the way that Dr. Kreeft appeals to moral intuition of everyday people as the standard for moral judgment.  The standard to whom we appeal is not the moral intuition of us all, but the moral intuition of the virtuous man.  The problem is that all of us who think ourselves pretty good blokes, when confronted with a moral dilemma, will consider ourselves to be good judges, even when we are not. 
Response to Peter Kreeft: The moral intuition of the saints
We have many examples of virtuous agents in the realm of truthfulness in the saints.  Many of which have been well laid out in the context by contributors to the New Theological Movement, “Lying to Planned Parenthood, or is it mental reservation?”.  Perhaps the greatest example of the virtuous man is the Man himself, in his dialogue with the one who questioned the very nature of truth.  When questioned by Pilate, not only does our Lord not lie, but speaks in such a way that his words cannot be used against him.  St. Athanasius, St. Francis, St. Nicholas Owen, the monks defending St. Moses the Black do not lie, but are given the graces necessary to be heroically truthful even when life is on the line.
I must also disagree with the appeal to synderesis as Thomistic justification for the quasi-universality of moral intuition.  While it is the habit of precepts of the natural law, so indeed moral intuition, the habit of the first principles of human action, synderesis does not come with conclusions from moral intuition included.  The principles must be applied to our particular circumstances, something which only the virtuous person habitually does effectively.
Nor do I agree with the assertion that verbal ploys to maintain honesty are beyond the moral capacity of every but the most clever human being.  If the gifts of the Spirit and the infused virtues allow God to “work in us without us,” then anyone in the state of grace would be capable of such heroic honesty as to act and speak truthfully even in difficult situations.
The example of the Egyptian midwives
So what happens when people do not act heroically virtuous as regards truthfulness in difficult situations such as when the Nazis are at the door or when spying on Russians or when going undercover either as an agent of the state or as a defender of life?  For this answer, I would look to St. Thomas Aquinas and how he treats the examples of the midwives during pharoah’s slaughter of the innocents.  It seems clear that the midwives lied to pharaoh about being present at the time of birth of the Hebrew children (Ex.1:19).  It seems to me an appropriate parallel to the actions of Lila Rose and company.  Both the midwives and Live Action are lying to save children.  How are the actions of both to be morally evaluated?
On at least two occasions, Thomas deals with the case of the midwives in answering objections.  The context of the objections are enlightening.  Thomas asks, “whether every lie is a sin?” to which he will reply in the affirmative.  Thomas then asks, “whether every lie is a mortal sin?” to which he will reply in the negative.  There should be no difficulties yet.  When the objection points out that God rewarded the midwives, which is clear from Ex. 1:21, the objector concludes therefore not every lie is a sin.  One can almost hear the voices of interlocutors in the current debate surrounding the actions of Live Action.  Thomas, on the other hand, will praise the midwives, not for their lying, but for their fear of God and their good-will, good-will which led them to tell a lie.  The midwives are praised because they feared God and they wanted to save babies.  The midwives are not praised for their lies.
In reply to the next reference to the midwives, Thomas must answer St. Gregory who, at first blush, seems to be more rigorous in his interpretation of the dilemma of the midwives.  Gregory interprets the rewards granted by God as merely temporal and not eternal on account of the lie that they told which excluded them from heavenly rewards.  The conclusion in the objection is “therefore, even a dutiful (officisum) lie, which seemingly is the least of lies, is a mortal sin.”  Thomas considers the lie of the midwives first from the point of view of their benevolence toward the Jewish babies and of their fear of God.  In light of these virtues, the midwives merit not only praise but an eternal reward.  When Thomas considers the external actions, they still merit remuneration, namely, one that is not inconsistent with the deformity of their lie.
Lying to Planned Parenthood was wrong, but Live Action still deserves praise
So what can we conclude?  We can watch movies about, listen to stories of, even grant honors to war-time spies, CIA agents, undercover policemen, men and women who protected Jews during world-war II, blacks in 19th century America, and priests in 16th century England.  If, according to St. Thomas, we can remunerate such people as regards even their external acts with temporal honors that are not inconsistent with the deformity of their lying, is there some remuneration for the external actions of Live Action?  On the other hand, as regards the morality of the actions, can we praise and commend, not the perfect virtue, but the virtuous dispositions of Live Action, knowing that we praise them for their benevolence toward children in the womb and fear of God, not for their lying?
If this seems imprecise, I would respond that such is the nature of the subject matter.  To re-iterate the conclusion, then, hopefully in the spirit of St. Thomas: Though the external actions of Live Action are not good, the virtuous dispositions which led them to lie are good.  Their course of external actions is not the best way to act, nor the only way to act, but that course does not exclude them from temporal remunerations, nor even eternal rewards. 
This article, though posted by Reginaldus, has been written by “Hospes” – a guest contributor.


Anil Wang said...

Thank you. I was on Dr. Kreeft's side, but I knew it was not so simple. One facet of natural law is that one does not break natural law, one is broken by it. It's plain to see that a life-time of lying, even for an undeniable good injures us.

I thought that some variation of "Just war" theory (aka Just lying) was possible but just hadn't been formulated yet. It might still be, but it's not for lay speculation to affirm.

You've added the right balance based off of tradition.

patricius said...

Thank you for your helpful article. I had come across Augustine on the Midwives in the "Contra Mendacium" and he definitely affirms that God rewards them for their good intentions and not for their deception/lying. He adds that a sin in which the intention is to help someone is less offensive than a sin which is meant to cause harm, and in this language is revealed the reality of the moral dilemma, which you point out- there is something praiseworthy in their intent, but misguided in their action...

Your point about the virtuous man as the standard of appeal in the moral life is essential- it is related to the more general problem of an ungrounded democracy- democracy works well if it is grounded in a moral sense/law, but can lead to horrors if not and if every opinion no matter what is given the same protection under the law- which is practically impossible anyway...

Perhaps your insights and clarifications will not appease everyone- we usually want a simple "yes" its OK or "no" its never to be done, but you have helped us to see the more nuanced reality at work. Certainly lying is a sin and should not be done, but to affirm the good-will on the part of Live Action while calling a 'spade a spade' in the way their good-will has been expressed is essential. Thomas always helps us to see the whole truth.

thanks and peace.

Deo volente said...

I have followed this discussion intently and must agree with Anil Wang and patricius. This seems to be the most reasoned explanation I have seen yet that takes into full account Thomistic theology.

Thank you for the explanation!

Jesse said...

Thank you very much for this reasoned response. It's refreshing to get some clarity from the Angelic Doctor! I'll be sure to post a link to this on my Catholic Facebook group.

God Bless

St. Thomas Aquinas Pray for Us!

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the local Bishop(s) of the Catholics in Live Action has to say about their behavior?

Suzanne said...

While LiveAction is certainly deserving of praise for its pro-life stance and its willingness of its members to risk themselves to get at the truth, one of the things that motivated me to denounce the lying is that a lot of people praise LiveAction giving the impression that lying is okay.

I'm somewhat cautious about saying too much about LiveAction precisely because its most well-known modus operandi is using lies while going undercover. I sense that if we praise LiveAction, we might be giving the impression that we approve of their actions, or that we don't really care about their morality.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I very much sympathize with you.
I too don't feel very comfortable with the conclusion of the above guest-article.

On two counts LiveAction seems to be quite different from the midwives:
1) The midwives were forced into the situation, they didn't seek it out -- in this way, LiveAction is more like Judith deceiving Holefernes.
2) Neither Judith nor the midwives engaged in lying as a general modus operandi -- thus, LiveAction seems to be doing something more reprehensible, in that they are "building a culture of lie" (as Dawn Eden says). [this is your primary point]

Michel A said...

This post helps us get more clarity in this confusing and emotional debate (I feel like I'm hanging at the end of a moral yo-yo!).

I agree with Suzanne and Reginaldus, Live Action does not "deserve" praise, but rejoicing at their action, particularly if it substantially contributes to defunding PP, is ok. We should be able to both cheer Lila Rose and warn her of the ill effects of "Aliensky playbook"

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

And I do want to be clear...I think that this article by "Hospes" is the best thing that has been written on the subject thus-far.
My little "criticism" (if it could even be called that) is simply a very slight difference of opinion...something which "Hospes" has himself defended (in a manner far better than I had in the previous articles, I might add).

Brent said...

I'm late to this discussion, but it got my brain going because before I was Catholic I tried to deal with this in my religion classes. I am getting ready to make a post about it on my blog (referencing Kreeft's article and your response), but wanted to get your feedback. This issue made me think about the movie The Scarlet and the Black and the Nazi gestapo in Rome. The priest and his cohorts in the real life story subvert the Nazis through an elaborate deception so as to protect innocent Jewish and refugee lives. So, I have two issues, I'm trying to work through:

1. If lying is always against the natural law would it always be a mortal sin? In other words, if a condition for true forgiveness would be to resolve to not sin again, would you really commit to not lying again if you new it meant a moral evil (e.g. murder)? If you couldn't truly repent, what does that mean? (if the duress of the decision made it venial maybe that's the way out)

2. If we are going to differentiate between situations that we are "put into" against our wishes and situations that we put ourselves into, I think it becomes more difficult (enter the Nazi gestapo in Rome and the Abortion gestapo in the USA) to differentiate between what Live Action is doing and the midwives. Maybe the difference we sense between the two is merely the indifference we have to the fact that babies are being aborted right in our own backyard. Maybe we should be like the Midwives, er, Live Action and sense our immediate responsibility to protect innocent lives.

I'm very interested in your thoughts.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

1) No, it would not always be a mortal sin to lie. It is at least a venial sin to lie freely and knowingly -- but, circumstances and intention can make it only a venial sin and not a mortal sin.
Hence, the midwives committed a venial sin by their lie, but merited heaven by their good intention.

2) Regarding the Church's involvement in protecting the Jews -- there is some good research coming out on all that. William Doino Jr has argued that Pius XII did not lie to the Nazi's. Moreover, it seems that he specifically worked against the practice of some priests of forging documents to save the Jews.
The "story" of Pius XII and other vatican officials lying and fabricating documents may be more myth than fact... It is something we will have to look at more carefully as the canonization process progresses.
Diono has a good article on this:

I am not claiming to know the facts or the history ... I am only saying that the way it is often presented strikes me as a bit legendary...

In any case, if Pius XII directly lied to the Nazi's (and especially if he forged documents, and sacramental document in particular), he sinned.

Rather than engaging in sinful practices, we ought to turn our eyes to the mountains: "From where shall come my help? May help shall come from the Lord, who made heaven and earth."
We don't need lies to defeat planned parenthood, we have the truth -- that should be plenty enough to destroy them!

Peace! +

Brent said...

Thank you for your timely and pious response. You (1) pointed out that the midwives (or Kant's innocent bystander) if living today would not need the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the sin which eliminates one of my difficulties and (2) affirmed the natural law and ultimately the holiness of God (which was everything good about the original article).

I appreciate your comments and I am going to amend my blog post accordingly to reflect these insights.

Kreeft's intuition has a good intention just like the midwives act, but fails to grasp the *saintly* intuition that none of us is really the better off if we must use the weapons of our enemy to defeat him. (and score one for Kant too!)

Through the Immaculate Conception,


adnilemeus said...

When the Joshua and Caleb entered into the Promised Land Rahab hid them. When asked about them she told the king that they had left the city while hiding them. Yep it was a lie....When the the Ten Commandments say do not lie what does that mean? I believe it means not to God. But when it comes to doing the moral thing sometimes lying is neccessary to do that. Otherwise, many more people would suffer in life. If lying for selfish and petty reasons, well we all know that's wrong, but doing something that's hard, well that's right. This planet is full of sinners and to corner us into black and white situations, we will all fail. But to allow us to make choices and follow His will, that takes courage.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You are wrong to simply twist Scripture to mean what you like ... we must interpret the Bible within the Tradition of the Church ... and the Church teaches that lying is always wrong (whether lying to human beings or to God) ... to think that any absolute prohibition is "to corner us into black and white situations" is ridiculous! Shall we then allow for murder of the innocent in some situations? How about adultery? Or theft?

In any case ... regarding the use of Scripture in this debate ... see the following article:

[it is really a bit blasphemous to invoke the Bible in order to justify our sins]

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